Anger is both beneficial and necessary, and at the same time, a potentially dangerous liability. In this blog I write about some of its central benefits along with qualifying cautions.
Anger is helpful as a:
-Signal of wrong-doing
-Means of defense
-Message of deterrence
-Energetic source of motivation
The categories above (also below) are modified from those in Martha Nussbaum‘s book, Anger and Forgiveness, which I recommend as a philosophical examination of this subject.
Anger as a signal of wrong–doing or a significant event
Anger may arise when we notice harm inflicted on ourselves or others. That noticing comes through pain and perception. We experience the consequences of harm to ourselves through our own pain, and pain of others through an empathetic response. We see wrong-doing through our lens of values and principles, regardless of who is being harmed.
Anger organizes and coordinates our response. It moves us to do something about the harm that has occurred.
A downside of anger is its potential irrationality. It can lead a charge that contributes to further harm. Have we correctly perceived what occurred, and will the actions we are inclined to take be helpful? Aristotle advised that whatever anger leads us to do should always be muted.
Anger as a means of defense
To those exposed to it, anger is often experienced as an offensive stance that fuels aggressive and possibly disrespectful behaviour; however, from a biological perspective, anger can be a split-second shift from fear. Exposed to a threat, fear does not prepare us to defend ourselves, so the neurobiology quickly switches to anger.
We certainly may need the energy and strength that anger confers in order to defend ourselves from physical danger. We may also need it to escape from unfair oppression or protect the dignity of the self. In these ways and others, anger may be put to constructive service as a defense.
When anger is a tempered response to a genuine threat, all is well. However, this defensive function can lead to serious problems. For one, our anger may be defending us against what should be examined or exposed rather than guarded, for example a bloated ego or pain and shame that has not been consciously felt. Such anger can in turn drive hurtful and harmful behaviour towards others. One cannot assume that the feelings and inclinations anger empowers are justified or appropriate. We are wise to use our hearts to see through anger, seeking to find what truth might be on the other side.
Anger as a message of deterrence
Words and rationale are frequently not enough to communicate a meaning. An expression or viewpoint may need to be impassioned to reach us in a potent manner, and if anger is the feeling, then anger will carry the meaning on its back. Whether we are the object of a boss or spouse’s anger, we receive a message equivalent to, “Don’t do that!” Certainly at times, all of us have developed greater concern or compassion for someone’s circumstances based on their angry expression.
But, as a deterrent, anger has liabilities. Foremost, the effect of anger may be the exact opposite to what is expected. Rather than engendering concern in the other person, it can motivate detachment: “Treat me that way, and I stop caring.” A genuine expression of underlying fear or pain is more likely to motivate others. Certainly in the majority of situations, the expression of emotions other than anger will be more effective in building relationship.
Anger as an energetic source of motivation
One of the healthiest channels for anger is putting it into constructive action. We are angry about what occurred, but rather than using that energy in an unhelpful defensive response, we are motivated use it to build a better future for ourselves. Then, ironically, there is benefit to sustaining a sense of outrage that continues to fuel this motivation.
Your boss has told you that you don’t have enough experience for an assignment, or a sibling mentions that you don’t know how to enjoy life. In the first case you can take steps to demonstrate that your boss is wrong. In doing so, you use your anger to sustain your efforts of some extra investment in your responsibilities. In the second, you are offended, but may upon reflection have to admit there is truth to what your sibling said. Then, with some determination, you begin to plan enjoyable recreation more consciously.
Motivation and determination are often better uses of anger than mounting defenses.
Strive to understand anger and you’ll find there is much complexity to sort through. In the next blog, I will write more about the liabilities of anger and how to overcome them.